Facebook
Edutopia on Facebook
Twitter
Edutopia on Twitter
Google+
Edutopia on Google+
Pinterest
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

News Literacy: Critical-Thinking Skills for the 21st Century

Every teacher I've worked with over the last five years recalls two kinds of digital experiences with students.

The first I think of as digital native moments, when a student uses a piece of technology with almost eerie intuitiveness. As digital natives, today's teens have grown up with these tools and have assimilated their logic. Young people just seem to understand when to click and drag or copy and paste, and how to move, merge and mix digital elements.

The second I call digital naiveté moments, when a student trusts a source of information that is obviously unreliable. Even though they know how easy it is to create and distribute information online, many young people believe -- sometimes passionately -- the most dubious rumors, tempting hoaxes (including convincingly staged encounters designed to look raw and unplanned) and implausible theories.

How can these coexist? How can students be so technologically savvy while also displaying their lack of basic skills for navigating the digital world?

What to Believe?

Understanding this extends beyond customary generational finger wagging. While it's tempting to blame students themselves for failing to think critically, we should remember that the digital revolution represents one of the most radical changes in human history.

Students today face a greater challenge in evaluating information than their parents or grandparents did at their age. The cumulative amount of information that exists on the planet, from the beginning of recorded history to the present, is, by realistic estimates, doubling every two years. And even though digital natives have grown up in the information age, many of the adults and institutions in their lives are still grappling with its implications. In other words, it's likely that the kind of credulity we see in young people reflects our own collective uncertainty about what we encounter on the digital frontier. Finally, the skills that students need to effectively sort fact from fiction are often missing from school curricula.

This isn't to suggest any shortcoming on the part of today's teachers. Without the classroom time, quality teaching materials and professional development opportunities in the emerging field of news literacy, teachers cannot reasonably be expected to guide their students to achieve these new skills.

News literacy is a relatively new field in media studies that focuses on defining and teaching the skills that citizens need to evaluate the credibility of the information they encounter, and on examining the role that credible information plays in a representative democracy.

It's also a subject that most students find inherently engaging and relevant. In fact, a recent study found that 84 percent of young people between the ages of 15 and 25 say they would benefit from learning these skills.

3 Exercises in News Literacy

But the question for teachers remains: "How can I integrate news literacy into my classroom amid so many other priorities, standards and goals?" I'd like to share three accessible ideas for how to do so.

Reinvent Current Events

Have students collect examples of information that they feel is timely and important. Then lead a discussion about who produced the content and for what purpose. Is it intended to inform? Persuade? Entertain? Sell? Create small groups and assign each a key characteristic of credibility to study:

Then have each team lead an assessment of its assigned attribute. Consider writing a group letter to the reporter, creator or editor about items that are either exemplary or problematic.

Explore the Power of Information

Pose an "essential question for the day" that explores the power and impact of information (e.g., "What changes would we see in the U.S. if the First Amendment protections of speech and press were repealed?"). Then use such websites as the Committee to Protect Journalists or Reporters Without Borders to examine press freedoms around the world. Track the number of journalists jailed, kidnapped or killed in 2014, and investigate the circumstances surrounding these incidents.

Fact-Checking Challenge

Display a different example of dubious information each week or month and challenge your students to research its accuracy using non-partisan fact-checking resources and advanced web searching. Give prizes or extra credit to those who get it right, or work collaboratively to seek answers as a class.

The Practice of Critical Thinking

Not only can these ideas be adapted to explore a range of relevant issues in a variety of academic subjects and grade levels, they also embody the principles of 21st century learning and are aligned with Common Core State Standards.

News literacy education has the potential to engage students and ignite their critical thinking. More importantly, it can empower them to make better-informed choices in their lives as they move beyond the classroom and into the world.

For more information about the News Literacy Project, including our free online professional development session this spring, visit our website.

Comments (7)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Michael's picture
Michael
iPad Integration and Management Specialist

This was a great piece, something I'm trying to speak to my 7th and 8th grade students about. What's surprising is that many of them have already become strong critical thinkers.

Lynn McAllister's picture
Lynn McAllister
Nursing Program Head

Thank you for your discussion on critical thinking and integration of technology, fact-checking, and the links. I plan to add the question of the day tactic in my nursing class. Often students are not staying abreast of current issues. I thought about your comment regarding students having so much more to take in with the technology at their fingertips. There is no real need to pick up a book when the pages can be turned on the eReader! Nothing wrong with that. You opened my eyes to some of my old fashioned thoughts.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator

I'm going to integrate this into my Intro to Next Generation Learning course at Antioch University New England this summer. I really like the way you frame it. Thanks much!

newteacherhelp.com's picture
newteacherhelp.com
Adjunct Instructor at Missouri State University

Great information, which should go hand-in-hand with the training of students to distinguish fact from opinion. Do a Google Search for "Educator 21C" and watch the first search result (a video) to see how this organization is changing how teachers are being offered Professional Development they can actually use!

JohnBorich's picture
JohnBorich
7th grade teacher from Princeton, Minnesota

I love your ideas. I require my 7th grade American History students to summarize a current event each month. However, I have sticking to one strategy of the old fashion idea of the 5W's! I have become frustrated with my approach to get them critically thinking about the events. I needed new ideas because current events are entertaining to the students and now I have a variety of ideas I can use from your advice.
Context
Quality sourcing
Verification
Word choice
Documentation
Fairness

What do you recommend for lesson that would focus on fairness? How have your done this in the past? How do you discuss.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal
Facilitator

John, I might start with with a conversation about what "fair" means to different folks in the room. This is an interesting structure: http://learningtogive.org/lessons/unit516/lesson1.html

Teaching Tolerance has some good ideas though they're a little elementary focused. (http://www.tolerance.org/lesson/what-s-fair)

I found some other interesting things here:
http://www.whatkidscando.org/specialcollections/voices_middle_grades/voi...
and
http://www.goodcharacter.com/ISOC/Fairness.html

This is a good overview of the topic:
http://www.edutopia.org/blog/fair-isnt-equal-richard-curwin

Peter Adams's picture
Peter Adams
Senior Vice President, Educational Programs, The News Literacy Project

Hi John,

Thanks for your interest.

Many people find fairness (like any news literacy concept related to the concept of bias) difficult to teach because there is no single factor one can use, no authoritative way, to determine if a given piece of information is fair. Others feel that discussing bias-related issues is too controversial for the classroom. In my view, however, concepts and issues that bring together complexity, nuance, controversy and authentic impact present educators with a kind of "perfect-storm" opportunity to engage critical thinking.

It's also important to address these issues as cynicism about journalists and "the media" seems to be growing, mostly by way of unsubstantiated, often unfair partisan assertions. If we allow our students to take these assertions about bias at face value instead of exploring and discussing them, it serves to accelerate the notion that all sources of information are equally flawed--that credibility is whatever each individual believes it to be. The effect of this growing cynicism, in my view, is the opposite of civic engagement (civic disengagement), providing people with a convenient way to elude or deflect information that complicates their existing views and beliefs. It shuts down the national conversation and, ultimately, undermines democratic values.

So to answer your question, I'd say first and foremost I would teach students about the civic importance of credible information, about the role that established truths about an event or issue play in a healthy democracy.

Second, use an example of information that is patently unfair to elicit what journalistic fairness means from your students. Does the example present a range of viewpoints? Is the creator of the information named and does he or she appear to be at least *trying* to keep their personal opinions out of the piece? Is there evidence of verification? Does it give the individuals or organizations named in the report a chance to voice their side of the story? Does it place people's actions and words in context and present them in a way that is fundamentally fair?

You can then have students contrast this obviously unfair piece with one that you feel aspires to be fundamentally fair (using the guidelines above). What differences exist in tone, word choice and any accompanying visuals (like images or graphics)? How do the two examples differ in terms of sourcing? What are the significant facts each piece presents and how are they substantiated? What can we learn from these differences?

Another way to engage students around issues of fairness is to select a controversial subject (or have students vote to select one that is meaningful to them) and then have them pair up with a classmate they don't know very well and interview one another about their views on this subject. Give each person five minutes to do this, then ask the class to write a 150-word profile of the person they interviewed (perhaps as homework). (You might tell them in advance that they need to include at least one quote from their subject.) Once the piece is finished, the subject of the profile will evaluate it. Is it accurate? Is it fair? What did it get right? What is missing?

There are lots of other ways to engage and teach about the importance of journalistic fairness: 1) Get students to examine and evaluate news judgment: Do they agree with the choices their local network affiliates made the evening before? Do they agree with the choices on the front page of their local paper? If so, why? If not, what should these news orgs have covered that they did not? What did they cover that they should not have? 2) Elicit a set of assumptions about news coverage of a given subject, issue or event from the class, then explore these assumptions by examining actual coverage. Teens may feel that young people are misrepresented by their local paper, or that their neighborhood is misrepresented in some way--so task them with finding out and proving it. Do comprehensive searches of reports over a period of time (one month, say) and then task them with using this collection of information to test their assumptions. If the class finds something problematic about the coverage, encourage them to respond by writing a letter to the editor with their findings, or creating a blog post about them. If the class finds that actually looking at coverage over time problematizes one of their assumptions, or disproves it, have them reflect on it. What led them to have this impression? What should they do next?

As just about all teachers know, fairness is incredibly important among teens, most of whom have a very keen sense of what is and is not fair in their daily lives. The trick here, then, like all good teaching, is to get students to apply this understanding beyond themselves and to help them become engaged, explorative, authentic learners.

The News Literacy Project will be tackling some of this in our upcoming open virtual PD sessions in April. You can register for one of these sessions at http://thenewsliteracyproject.org/openpd

(EDIT: I altered my original first sentence of the fifth paragraph to read a little better.)

Sign in and Join the Discussion! Not a member? Register to join the discussion.